Tuberculosis (TB) Disease: Symptoms and Risk Factors

Woman reviewing TB brochure

Tuberculosis (TB) is a disease caused by bacteria that are spread through the air from person to person. If not treated properly, TB disease can be fatal. People infected with TB bacteria who are not sick can take medication to prevent TB disease from developing in the future. Learn to recognize the symptoms of TB disease and find out if you are at risk.

Anyone Can Get TB

At first Shaka thought he had the flu. He had chills, was tired all the time, and had no appetite. After almost a month of night sweats, chest pain, persistent cough, and losing about 30 pounds, Shaka knew something was really wrong, and went to the doctor.

After several more weeks of doctor visits and exams, and worsening symptoms, he was admitted to the hospital. Eventually he was diagnosed with TB.

Shaka

Shaka, TB Survivor

Mildred

Mildred, TB Survivor

“And they came to me, and they said, we think you have tuberculosis. While I was laying there on the stretcher, I laughed as best that I could and told them that nobody gets tuberculosis. And they said, well, we think you have it,” says Shaka.

Mildred had a similar experience. It started with a cough and sore throat. She was initially diagnosed with strep throat and was given antibiotics. But the cough continued. She also began having night sweats and a fever. One night she was up all night coughing and couldn’t keep any food down. She knew something was very wrong and went to the hospital. After six months of uncertainty, she was finally diagnosed with TB.

“One of the main concerns I had when the diagnosis with TB was made was everybody else. As soon as you learn that you’re infectious, as soon as you learn that for the last 6 or 7 months you’ve been exposing everybody you see – and you’re thinking the Metro. You’re thinking your job, you’re thinking your family,” Mildred recalls.

Anyone can get TB. People with TB disease can be found in every state; in rural areas and cities; in schools, workplaces, homes; and in many other places where people are in close contact. Learn to recognize the symptoms of TB disease and find out if you are at risk.

Latent TB Infection and TB Disease

The bacteria that cause TB is spread through the air from person to person when a person with TB disease coughs, speaks, or sings. People nearby may breathe in these bacteria and become infected. There are two types of TB conditions: latent TB infection and TB disease.

TB bacteria can live in the body without making you sick. This is called latent TB infection. In most people who breathe in TB bacteria and become infected, the body is able to fight the bacteria to stop them from growing. People with latent TB infection do not feel sick, do not have any symptoms, and cannot spread TB bacteria to others.

If TB bacteria become active in the body and multiply, the person will go from having latent TB infection to being sick with TB disease. For this reason, people with latent TB infection are often prescribed treatment to prevent them from developing TB disease.

People with TB disease usually have symptoms and may spread TB bacteria to others.

Woman coughing

A cough lasting 3 weeks or longer is a symptom of TB disease.

TB bacteria most commonly grow in the lungs, and can cause symptoms such as:

  • A bad cough that lasts 3 weeks or longer
  • Pain in the chest
  • Coughing up blood or sputum (mucus from deep inside the lungs)

Other symptoms of TB disease may include:

  • Weakness or fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • No appetite
  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Sweating at night

TB disease can be treated by taking medicine. It is very important that people who have TB disease are treated, finish the medicine, and take the drugs exactly as prescribed. If they stop taking the drugs too soon, they can become sick again; if they do not take the drugs correctly, the TB bacteria that are still alive may become resistant to those drugs. TB that is resistant to drugs is harder and more expensive to treat.

TB Disease: Only the Tip of the Iceberg
People with latent TB infection do not have symptoms, but may still need treatment.

TB Risk Factors

Anyone can get TB, but certain people should be tested for TB infection because they are at higher risk for being infected with TB bacteria, including:

  • People who have spent time with someone who has TB disease
  • People from a country where TB disease is common (most countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and Russia)
  • People who live or work in high-risk settings (for example: correctional facilities, long-term care facilities or nursing homes, and homeless shelters)
  • Health-care workers who care for patients at increased risk for TB disease
  • Infants, children and adolescents exposed to adults who are at increased risk for latent tuberculosis infection or TB disease

Eliminating TB in the United States

Millions of people in the United States have latent TB infection. Without treatment, they are at risk for developing TB disease. Treatment of latent TB infection is essential to controlling and eliminating TB in the United States. If you think you may have latent TB infection, TB disease, or were exposed to someone with TB disease, contact your health care provider or your TB control office. You and your health-care provider can discuss your options for testing and treatments.

More Information

Page last reviewed: January 24, 2019
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